Did you know that there are few places in Latin America where English and Spanish are spoken bilingually? Adventure lovers with little or no Spanish can experience the beauty of these fantastic locations, meet the locals, and start to build their confidence in Spanish. The great thing is you can fall back on English if necessary. After a couple of weeks or months, you can then head to a language school in a monolingual location and continue your journey towards Spanish fluency.
San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina
The San Andres Archipelago of Colombia is one such place. This three island province, consisting of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina, lies 775km (458 miles) north-west of the Colombian mainland and 220km (140 miles) of the east coast of Nicaragua. San Andres is a coral island while Providencia and Santa Catalina are of volcanic origin.
English Puritan settlers were the first to inhabit the islands in the early 1600s. African slaves were brought to the islands from Jamaica from the 1630s onward to cultivate cotton and tobacco. The archipelago attracted pirates, including the infamous Henry Morgan, who had control of the islands until the late 1600s, using them as bases for attacks on Spanish ships. There is a myth that some treasure is still buried on San Andres. In 1786 a treaty was signed by England and Spain allowing for the departure of the English settlers, although many stayed, agreeing to pay taxes to the Spanish crown. The archipelago became an official Spanish colony in 1803 and in 1822 the islands became part of the newly liberated Colombia.
The native islanders – also called Raizales - who make up 30% of the population, speak English and San Andres-Providencia Creole as well as Spanish. SA-P Creole is fairly easy to understand when spoken slowly. However there is no gender distinction in this Creole so don’t be surprised if you are referred to as being of the opposite sex. It is more common to hear English or Creole in Providencia as this island has proportionally more Raizal inhabitants and far fewer tourists from the mainland.
Hotels and guesthouses owned by Raizales are the best places to stay for people who want a communicative safety net. These posadas nativas are often converted family houses, built of wood in the traditional island clapboard style. A list of posadas nativas can be found on the Posadas Turisticas de Colombia website.
San Andres is surrounded by “the sea of seven colours” and there is a variety of water sports for a visitor to choose from. They include windsurfing, kitesurfing, jet-skiing, as well as spectacular snorkeling and scuba diving due to the numerous coral reefs around all three islands. For those who prefer more land based activities there are the options of renting bicycles, scooters, or golf buggies to travel around the island at your own pace. On Providencia and Santa Catalina visitors can hike, snorkel or scuba dive.
Typical Colombian fare, such as bandeja paisa, and arepas are available but the excellent sea food is highly recommended. The typical dish of the islands is rundown or rondon which is a stew of fish, conch and pigtail cooked in coconut milk. The lobster is also very good.
San Andres island’s Gustavo Rojas Pinilla Airport receives international flights from Panama and domestic flights from Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and Barranquilla. Providencia’s El Embrujo Airport only receives flights from San Andres. It is also possible to travel between San Andres and Providencia by catamaran or cargo boat. Providencia and Santa Catalina are linked by a footbridge.
Taking your Spanish to the next level
You can improve your Spanish by taking a language course on the Colombian mainland. Ailola Latino can help you find a course in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, country capital Bogota, or Leticia in the Amazon. If you would like another stamp in your passport, you could also consider Panama as a destination for more formalised language betterment.
Lead image by Toni Peters